You only have to say the name of the country, and everyone oohs and aahs. Iceland is amazing. It’s exotic, progressive, ingenious, electric: Iceland uses 100-percent renewable energy for its electricity, tapping into geothermal and hydropower sources.
It has a similar temperament to Hawaii – no joke. They’re both islands, and maybe that has something to do with their less-frantic lifestyles. There was no clock in either room of the two hotels I stayed in. Even the horses in Iceland are docile. It’s no wonder the country is ranked No. 1 on the Global Peace Index.
So, crime isn’t much of a thing in Iceland:
A total of three people were killed in 2017, and in addition Police investigated eight attempted murders, more than at any time since the 2001, when the Police began collecting statistics on attempted murders.
Violent crime is extremely rare in Iceland. In 2016 only one murder was reported….
It hardly seems fair to compare the entire country to the mid-sized city of Albuquerque – granted, twice the population size – where there were 75 killings in 2017, but there you have it.
Gender equality is definitely a thing. The country has been No. 1 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for nine years running. In leadership, the current President is male and the Prime Minister is a woman.
Iceland has just under 340,000 people (the capital city of Reykjavik has around 123,000), but no indigenous population. Iceland and Hawaii are both smothered in soul-cradling beauty in landscape, waterfalls, rainbows, and majestic wildlife. It’s 1,000 stairs to the top of Oahu’s Koko Crater Trail, and while it’s only 370 steps to the top of Skógafoss waterfall, climbing them felt like déjà vu. Both places share the volatility of imminent volcanic eruption. When Iceland’s Katla volcano erupts, water from the glacier perched on it will flood the valley and the town of Vik. Its 300 residents and 3,000 tourists will have 20 minutes to evacuate. Luckily, there’s a tested plan, because Katla is long overdue.
Living in the high desert of Albuquerque, I look up a lot. The ground has rocks and snakes and such to watch out for but otherwise, it’s a lot of dust and gravel. In contrast, the vast skies host dynamic clouds, fluffy or foreboding or both side-by-side, thunderstorms in the distance, flocks of geese, hot air balloons, the Sandia Mountains and stunning sunsets. I assumed that in Iceland, the skies would be gray and so I’d be looking down for beauty. I was mistaken. The clouds are magnificent, barnacle geese are prevalent, and while not as high as the Sandias, there are snow-capped mountains and there is skiing in Iceland. The Mt. Hlídarfjall/Akureyri area is popular, and of course there’s Nordic skiing, too – all can be done under the Northern Lights. (Yes, please.)
Iceland is greatly dependent on tourism, and Americans always make a good story. There’s this one from 2016, of a guy who arrived in Iceland and typed the address of his hotel into his GPS, mistakenly adding an extra R to Laugavegur. An errant letter amounted to five-ish hours (270 miles) on remote roads heading deep into northern Iceland. The Siglufjörður (say that four times fast) town woman on whose doorstep he arrived, thoughtfully arranged a room for him at a local hotel.
If you don’t follow certain rules in Iceland, you die. Americans aren’t generally fond of rules. Riding in a shuttle, I was behind a husband and wife from Alabama who’d had a couple boat tours cancelled due to high winds, and were getting impatient. “Give me a waiver or whatever and I’ll sign it. Just let me go on a tour,” the wife said with apparent disregard for the fragility of human life and the force of nature. I was telling an Albuquerque waiter about Katla and the evacuation plan, and he said, “I used to live in Tacoma, so we were always in danger of the [Mt. Rainier] volcano. I don’t think we had an evacuation plan, though. There are plenty of us. We can just make more,” he laughed.
Though exhausting, my Iceland adventure was refreshing, much like climbing a glacier and stopping for a slurp of pure Sólheimajökull water. “Brace yourself on the glacial walls and lean in; stick your lips out to get a sip, seriously,” our guide suggested, and I did. Glacier water and a couple of specks of volcanic dust – the cure for all ills.
I was lured to the island by the annual Iceland Writers Retreat, a spectacular opportunity to convene with non-fiction, fiction, and poetry writers along with published authors from around the globe for workshops and readings. The swag bag alone, packed with volcanic salt, Omnom chocolate, an Icelandic mystery novel, a day planner, hand lotion, etc. was almost enough to make it worth the fee. Iceland’s President, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, and (Canadian) First Lady, Eliza Reid, hosted a Retreat reception at the Residence (with wine and delicate hors d’oeuvres – no fast food), and were gracious enough to pose for selfies. Side note from this awesome and informative blog: Jóhannesson is “the first president anywhere in the world to participate in Gay Pride festivities.”
More on the glacier walk – at the high point, our guide asked us to put away our cameras and phones and listen to the sound of the wind, a trickle of water, blue sky. He asked how long it had been since we’d heard that sound. He explained that researchers have revised how long it will be for the massive glacier to disappear, to 150 years. He implored us to do one small thing to delay climate change. I pass along to you what came to mind: when you order coffee to stay and socialize or read and work, ask for a ceramic mug. (Maybe you have to be middle-aged to notice, so trust me, ceramic maintains authentic coffee flavor rather than infusing it with paper, and prevents the mountains of cups spilling from the trash bins of every coffee establishment. Win-win.)
Cycling is huge in Iceland. (Kidding.) National road and cyclocross champion, Ingvar Ómarsson, is the first and only full-time pro cyclist from Iceland and has been the country’s Cyclist of the Year the past five years, since he’s the only one. (Kidding again. He’s earned it.) “I focus on mountain biking but when I race in Iceland, I do everything I can get my hands on,” he told me in an email. Ómarsson is sponsored by Novator, an investment company owned by billionaire Thor Bjorgolfsson, the richest man in Iceland. Agusta Edda Bjornsdottir was Iceland’s champion in women’s mountain biking and Individual Time Trial in 2017.
The Iceland Men’s National Football (soccer) Team qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 2018, which is a big deal, since Iceland is the smallest nation to reach the finals. Here’s how it happened. The President and multi-talented First Lady starred in this ad encouraging team support. (FYI, Rúrik Gíslason is way hotter than Ronaldo.) The women’s team was ranked 22nd in March 2019 by FIFA, ahead of Mexico and Argentina.
On my second morning home in Albuquerque, having brought back bronchial crud and waking from a nightmare (WTH? I almost never have them), feeling jetlagged and a bit solitary, I fretted over whether I need to work on self-confidence, if I should visit my dad, if I should move to Minneapolis, how I can be more proactive about ridding the world of discrimination, and how I can become more kind and considerate. That’s what an Iceland retreat can do for a person.
I skim hope from this quote by Sveinn Ásgeirsson, pulled from an ESPN soccer article because, in a sense, we are each individual fricking islands in an ocean:
I’m always hoping I’ll dream of places I’ve been. I wanted to dream of my time in Hawaii and the schools of fish I swam with, the sea turtle I saw. But I didn’t.
I have been dreaming of Ísland.